MIT Sloan study finds
moral beliefs key to understanding and predicting violence
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Nov. 25, 2015 – What
makes people violent? While most explanations tend to assume that violence
results from a failure to act morally, a new book by MIT Sloan School of
Management lecturer Tage Rai finds that most violence is actually motivated by
moral sentiments. The perpetuators of violence actually feel that not
committing the violent act would be morally wrong.
coauthor of the book Virtuous Violence,
says, “It’s not about a breakdown in moral sensibilities, but rather that
perpetuators of violence have a different sense of morality. They view violence
as the fundamentally right thing to do even though we cannot see any possible
justification for it.”
began studying this issue by asking why people disagree when and if violence is
appropriate. He looked at a diversity of scenarios, such as why spanking
children was more acceptable 50 years ago than today, and why it is still more
acceptable in certain parts of the country. He looked at issues globally,
asking why it is incomprehensible to Westerners to kill women for sexual infidelity,
yet other parts of the world encourage this practice.
commonality, says Rai, is that the primary motivations for violence are moral.
“The general pattern my colleague and I observed was that violence is intended
to regulate social relationships and sustain a moral order. The perpetuators are
in control of their actions and their intention is to harm fellow human beings.”
at violent scenarios through this lens, he notes that spanking is perceived by
parents as a moral duty to ensure that children become responsible adults.
Similarly, drill sergeants and gang leaders inflict aggression and violence on
new recruits to create lifelong bonds and instill absolute obedience, which are
required in battle. This mentality is also seen with terrorists, who believe
they are morally justified and obligated to commit acts of terror.
further found that dehumanizing subjects doesn’t increase the likelihood of
violence. He explains that when violence is morally justified to the
perpetuator, it needs to cause pain and suffering for it to have meaning,
otherwise it would be pointless. In contrast, when people harm others for money
or other material goods, violence is just a byproduct.
doesn’t mean that people enjoy committing acts of violence. “Like many moral
practices, such as standing up for what is right or telling the truth, it can
be very upsetting to commit violence and may even require special training and
social support,” he says.
findings, notes Rai, can help us reduce violence around the world. “The key is
to change cultural standards and make violence immoral. There are interventions
we can do at the psychological level, but a lot of the work falls under social
structure changes like giving people more opportunities, reducing inequality,
and increasing stability.”
points to the general decrease in violence historically as evidence that
cultural values are changing in a way that shuns violence..
good news is that violence is changeable and is changing. Historically, the
global rates of violence as a percentage of the population is decreasing. The
motives for violence will continue to exist, but we can work for more peaceful
responses,” adds Rai.
is a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and coauthor of the book Virtuous
Violence with Alan Fiske.
The MIT Sloan School of
Management is where smart, independent leaders come together to solve problems,
create new organizations, and improve the world. Learn more at mitsloan.mit.edu.